Why Western attempts to understand Muslims so often end up reinforcing stereotypes

A Muslim attends Friday prayer in London.
A Muslim attends Friday prayer in London.
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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This week, Britain’s Channel 4 released “an extensive and rigorous survey to get a better understanding of British Muslims.” The survey, which involved face-to-face interviews with “a representative sample of 1,000 Muslims across Great Britain” has captured headlines both in the UK and abroad.

Many of its findings suggest that British Muslims are, as survey presenter Trevor Phillips contends, “becoming a nation within a nation.” On the surface, that conclusion might seem irrefutable. The truth is, however, much more complicated. That which headlines give, the fine print taketh away.

It’s funny how facts can be manipulated. Take, for example, the survey’s controversial finding that 52% of British Muslims do not believe homosexuality should be legal in Britain, while 47% do not believe school teachers should be gay. These are alarming numbers. But they’re not accurate, either.

The Channel 4 was restricted to Muslims who live in areas that are at least 20% Muslim. (Note: Muslims are not even 5% of the overall British population.) As Miqdaad Versi writes in The Guardian, “These happen to be some of Britain’s most deprived neighbourhoods … Choosing specifically to poll in areas that are poor and more religiously conservative skews the results.”

Those Muslims who live in largely Muslim neighborhoods are socioeconomically disadvantaged and, as such, less likely to participate in civic activities, and possibly much more alienated from the mainstream. Not least because they’d interact more with Muslims and less with others. More to the point, many British Muslims don’t live in such neighborhoods.

Apparently their opinions don’t count.

But that’s how the most conversations on Islam go. You start with the conclusion you want, then work backwards to find evidence to get you there. When you present your findings, the people who are already convinced Islam is the enemy now have even more ammunition for their war on diversity. It would be like saying America is hostile to Muslims, and then “proving” this fact by pointing to the 40% of North Carolinian Republicans who want to ban Islam. As in, criminalize Islam.

Remember, for all its talk of freedom and equality, in 2010, the US Department of Justice once had to intervene in a Tennessee mosque dispute to clarify that Islam was in fact a religion and deserving of first amendment protection.

In the present climate, when anti-Muslim rhetoric is soaring in the United States, in the United Kingdom, in France and Germany, in Slovakia and Poland, in Denmark and in Bulgaria, this survey isn’t just irresponsible. It’s potentially dangerous. This idea that British Muslims are “becoming a nation within a nation” only seems to prove that Islam and the West are incompatible and potentially doomed to conflict.

Now, because of the poll’s fundamental flaws, we can’t know how many British Muslims actually disapprove of homosexuality to the extent that they’d want to see it criminalized. But the results are, all the same, a major concern. But it’s not time to break out the civilizational conflict and enduring tension rhetoric just yet.

In 2000, a majority of US Muslims (largely excluding African-American Muslims) supported George W. Bush over Al Gore. The younger Bush had gone out of his way to include mosques in his rhetoric about religion. He also promised to look into the use of secret evidence against Muslims, even calling it a form of “racial profiling.” At the time, Republicans were also preferred for their fiscal policy—many immigrant-origin Muslims are well-to-do, and prefer lower taxes—and their general social conservatism, which lined up nicely with conservative Muslim values. Then there was the unfortunate fact that Al Gore’s running mate, Joe Lieberman, was perceived as biased against Muslims. My experience of this is anecdotal, but many Muslims told me privately that they feared Lieberman, who is Jewish, would be reflexively hawkish on Israel and the Muslim world.

Talk about learning your lesson the hard way. The events of 9/11 and its backlash forced many American Muslims of recent immigrant-origin to realize they were not (and never were) white, secure, or equally American. Today the overwhelming majority of Muslims vote for Democrats, even if they are socially conservative. This ability to separate personal religious belief from the law of the land shouldn’t be surprising. I myself am deeply uncomfortable with abortion, especially beyond the first trimester. But I am also deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the government should be able to tell women what to do with their bodies.

The United States and United Kingdom are different countries with different types of Muslim populations. But I believe a transformation similar to what has happened in the United States will happen in Britain. Such a transformation will shift political and social attitudes for generations to come. A shift leftward.

As Muslims become more politically conscious—ironically, a process driven by anti-Muslim sentiment—many will discover that while they share social values with the right, they also share many values with the left. And the left is far more likely to be open to them. Facing an anti-Muslim climate, young voters will become more politically engaged, which means they’ll end up aligning with leftists and progressives who are very much in favor of gay marriage.

At this point, many Muslims will be forced to ask themselves a question: If they deny other minorities the right to live as they choose to, how can they possibly expect that their own cultural and religious rights will be expected? That’s what happened in the United States, as more and more Muslims were willing to put private morality aside to build coalitions with leftists.

The same is already happening in the United Kingdom. Of the 13 British Members of Parliament, only two are Conservatives. Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is also Muslim. The more the right demonizes Muslims, the more Muslims will go left. There is after all a major difference between your personal sexual morality, and believing that you have the right to impose that morality on others who do not share it.

The first is called freedom of religion. The second is theocracy. It’s reasonable to be worried by some of the results of the Channel 4 poll. But everyone should also keep in mind that numbers don’t always depict the full truth.